Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Encounters: Cultural Exchange or Real Ecumenism?

by Alexander B. Miller

History exists as much in our imaginations as in the archeology of the past, and the potency of the imaginative depends upon our ability to recreate sensory or visceral experiences.  The doctrinal exchanges between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in recent years are unlikely to make history, but accompanying cultic exchanges may make a lasting impression and lend significance to the work of theological commissions.

Communion and relationship

The July week in 1054 that witnessed the mutual excommunications of Humbert of Silva Candida and Michael Keroularios is rich with drama and outrage for Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  This narrative is deeply satisfying for our imaginations, affirming a sense of historical offense as a foundation of our ecclesial identities.  However, historians tell us that this was not the earth-shattering event that we make it out to be.  In reality, few Christians felt this division in 1054—if they were even aware that it had taken place—because ordinary Christians in East and West had no substantial relationship with each other.  Greek had long ceased to be understood in the West, even among the educated, and the East never considered Latin to be an adequate language for the finer points of theology.  Politically, the coronation of a Germanic Holy Roman Emperor undermined the Byzantine Emperor in the West.  To the extent that Eastern or Western Christians thought of each other, it was conditioned by centuries of polemic that hardly afforded the other the dignity of the Christian name.  1054 merely set a seal upon the creeping de-Christianization and dehumanization of the Other.  When crusaders sacked Constantinople, did they really think that such atrocities were committed against fellow Christians, or could they excuse themselves knowing that their victims were heretics?  When politicians and churchmen brokered reunion councils, could Eastern Christians really be expected to accept communion with the heretical Other?

Removing doctrinal barriers is a only start.

Without a sense that the other is a Christian, division fails to scandalize us, and union bears no fruit.  So, when Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI lifted the excommunications in 1965, this did not yet amount to a restoration of communion.  They recognized offenses compounded over time, which required healing through the development of “fraternal relations of confidence and esteem” and a “unanimous sentiment of charity.”  Since that time, doctrinal commissions have been convened, and the 2007 Ravenna Document’s progress on the thorny issue of primacy and synodality has been enhanced by the Orthodox consensus on the 2016 Chieti Document that recognizes both the divisive history and the sense of ecclesial unity of the Church of the first millennium.  Despite these advances, what will drive Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism is not documents but the demands of the faithful, without whose reception reunion will fail.

Getting the Russian Patriarchate to join multilateral ecumenical discussions is no easy task, as the world witnessed most recently with the Great and Holy Synod in 2016.  In the same year, Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis met in a strikingly informal encounter in Havana, urged on by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East but also addressing political issues facing Europe, the family, and the relationship between the churches.  This May another high-profile Russian-Roman encounter occurred, when Pope Francis met with Metropolitan Hilarion in Rome at the conclusion of a “Summer Institute” that brought Russian clergy to Rome.  (Next summer, a delegation of Italian clergy will be hosted in Russia.)  As usual, Metropolitan Hilarion clearly voiced his skepticism that doctrinal agreement is on the horizon, let alone reunion. But all of these clerical meetings are beside the point.

Voting with their Feet

What is more promising are two exchanges that Metropolitan Hilarion reported during his Roman audience.  Though doctrinal agreement may not be imminent, he spoke with some optimism about the value of pious cultural exchange.  First, he expressed gratitude for the papal loan of relics of St. Nicholas from Bari to Moscow in 2017, and second, he promised a similar mission of the Icon of the Crucifixion by Dionisij, a disciple of St. Andrei Rublev, to Rome in the Fall.  (This will be the first time that the icon leaves Russian soil.)  I contend that neither Hilarion’s words nor the sharing of objects of piety are diplomatic pablum.  Hilarion is not prone to appeasing speech, nor would a man of his cultural accomplishment—a composer in his own right—degrade the aesthetics of piety.

Importantly, this is not a giving of gifts, but a sharing of gifts.  The fact that St. Nicholas’ relics and the icon are loaned, not given, is telling.  This is not a transfer of diplomatic gifts between dignitaries, which would never see the light of day beyond the photo op.  Nor is the an act of restitution, like the return of relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzus to Constantinople.  Instead, this is a sharing of the patrimony of the universal Church, and when the millions stood in line to venerate the relics of St. Nicholas in Russia and when so many venerate the icon in Rome, they encounter more than objects of piety.  They are encountering and becoming indebted to fellow Christians, disparate in ecclesial identity but united in the tactile expressions of their faith.  This is something that they do not share with political parties or intellectual schools.  The Christianity that they share is some felt in their legs aching from the wait to see their patron and the touch of their lips or hands extended in veneration.  What is more, the fact that the relics return to their home country is an acknowledgement that the Other is Christian, trusted with the custody of such a relic.

Just last week, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga published a homily apparently in response to Kirill and Hilarion’s efforts with the Catholic Church, suggesting that these meetings amount to indifference to Orthodoxy and naming Catholics as just one type of heretic among many.  I wonder which excite the imaginations of Russian Orthodox Christians more: Kliment’s words or the bones of St. Nicholas.


Alexander B. Miller is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Fordham University.  His work focuses the early history of Eastern Christianity and the appropriation of its memory in modern Western ecclesiastical projects.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.