Vienna, April 17 – In what is certainly no coincidence, the Vatican arranged for Moscow television to broadcast an appeal by Benedict XVI to the Russian church and people on exactly the same day that the Holy Father celebrated his 81st birthday in the Washington.
The timing and context of this broadcast underscore Benedict’s personal commitment to expanding ties between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Christianity, something he has spoken in favor of in the past and hopes to advance by a future pastoral visit to the Russian Federation.
And they are clearly intended both to distinguish the current German pope from his Polish predecessor and to make it more difficult for anti-Catholic elements in Moscow to portray Benedict’s visit to Washington as an extension of what they believe to be a Western conspiracy against Russia in general and Russian Orthodoxy in particular.
Benedict’s appeal was contained a film about his life prepared last year by the German Catholic organization, “The Church in Need.” It was broadcast yesterday at 1600 Moscow time as well as rebroadcast later and streamed on the “Vesti” television channel website (http://www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=8&id=20106).
The film contains many rare photographs and is, according to the Blagovest-info.ru religious affairs website, designed to stress the pope’s German roots and his social activities, thus dispelling the image he has in some quarters as hard line theologian who has spent most of his life in libraries or church courtrooms.
But the most important part of the film was Benedict’s direct appeal to the Russian people and Russian Church. Although some Russians may be offended by the pope’s statement that his see is the direct “successor” of the Apostle Peter, Benedict’s other comments are more likely to win many to his side.
Noting that “Russia is truly a great court, great in its size, deep spirituality, and multi-faceted culture,” the Holy Father noted that “in the last century, thelife of your beautiful country like that of many other countries of the European continent, was darkened by suffering and violence.”
But that tragic situation, he continued, was overcome by the “light of truth” which was shown in the willingness of “a multitude of martyrs: Orthodox, Catholic and believers of other regions, who died as a result of cruel persecutions” but by whose death their countries were redeemed.
Both this experience and the “love for Christ” “compels us to move quickly toward the restoration of unity among Christians,” an “obligation” that the pope said the Catholic Church takes to heart and that the Russian Orthodox Church clearly does as well.
All Christians who realize how much they have been given by God are also “called upon” to reach out to believers of other religions and “to conduct with them fruitful dialogue.” And consequently, Benedict said, he prayed to God that “the thousand-year-old experience of the Russian Christian Church will continue to enrich Christian thought in the spirit of sincere service to the Gospels and contemporary man.”
At the end of his speech, which “Vesti” translated, the pope gave the following “greeting” in Russian: “I am very glad,” he said, “to use Russian to speak to the people and authorities of your great and to me very dear Russian land. From my heart, I greet our dear Orthodox brothers, and in particular, His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, as well as the Catholic bishops and their commnityies.”
It is difficult to imagine that his predecessor John Paul II would have said any of this in exactly the same way, and it is impossible to imagine that the Polish pope would ever have chosen to say anything close to it and to the Russians on the same day he was in the capital of the United States.
That John Paul’s German successor has done so will open the way to expanded dialogue between Catholics and Russian Orthodox and that in turn makes it likely that Benedict will soon achieve something his Polish predecessor never did – an invitation to visit Russia and to meet with her people, her Church, and her government.