In a June 2019 interview with the Catholic news site Cath.ch, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev poured cold water on the possibility of Pope Francis visiting Russia in the near future.
Ever since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Russia has jealously guarded its territory from any papal visits despite John Paul II’s public hopes of doing so. Neither of John Paul II’s successors have been granted permission to visit the country, largely due to objections from the Russian Orthodox Church. Some still maintain that a visit is a real possibility under Pope Francis’s pontificate, perhaps due to the fact he was able to meet with the Russian Church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, in Havana, Cuba on February 12, 2016.
Hilarion Says Otherwise
However, Metropolitan Hilarion, a renowned theologian who is perceived to be the “second in command” of the Russian Orthodox Church, dismissed this notion, stating that the “conditions have not been met” for such a visit. According to the Metropolitan, there are still many within the Russian Orthodox Church who would object to an official papal visit. Hilarion, rightly or wrongly, expressed concern that a premature visit would damage Catholic/Russian Orthodox relations. He stated that the Russians “prefer to move slowly and with caution” so that a “positive evolution” in the two communion’s relationship could be achieved.
Hilarion did provide a favorable nod to the Vatican for allowing the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2017, which drew more than two million Orthodox faithful. In Hilarion’s words, “[Catholics and Orthodox] need this type of event to strengthen our relationship!”
Blaming Greek Catholics Again
Accompanying Hilarion’s words was an oft-repeated attack on the “Uniates,” that is, Ukrainian Greek Catholics whose bishops reunited with Rome in 1596 at the Union of Brest. Headed by Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) has five million members, most of whom reside in western Ukraine. Despite centuries of persecution at the hands of the Russian state, including forcible dissolution in 1946, the UGCC is enjoying a resurgence in its native land while neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox have fractured into a series of churches, most of which are not in communion with the mainline Orthodox Church.
Although Pope Francis has denounced “Uniatism” as a model for Catholic/Orthodox reconciliation, Patriarch Sviatoslav remains adamant that the UGCC will continue to thrive and spread the Gospel. Ecumenists in Rome, however, appear ready to sacrifice the UGCC in order to appease the Russian Orthodox Church, which sees Ukraine as its exclusive canonical territory. Despite projecting an outwardly cordial relationship, some suspect that Francis and Sviatoslav are at odds with respect to the UGCC’s future and Catholic/Orthodox relations.