MOSCOW – Pope John Paul II met with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Nov. 6, cultivating the long awaited hopes of mending the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
"I see my objective not in helping to get the pope to Russia but in helping steps towards unity. And naturally this is possible only if there is an understanding between churches," said Putin.
The historical tension between the two national churches augmented after the fall of the Communist regime in 1991; the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to recover churches that belonged to it before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, began missionary activities in Russia.
"[the relationship] suffered a great loss when Catholic missionaries decided they could cultivate Russia as a spiritual desert,” said the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.
By the late 90s, authorities expelled some Catholic priests and refused re-entry visas to others to stop them from “poaching converts” in Russia; the Russian Patriarch, Alexei, has also refused to meet the Pope unless changes in the Vatican’s missionary policies are made.
Nonetheless, Chaplin and others who favor normalizing ties within the churches said Wednesday’s meeting could strengthen their positions.
"We know that there are people in the Vatican who show good will toward our church," Chaplin said, according to the Interfax news agency. "We hope that this attitude will prevail, and the Vatican policy will stop bringing us unpleasant surprises."
During the meeting, John Paul, in a gesture of reconciliation, had his aides bring in the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan to the Vatican Library. Though he did not give the highly revered icon to Putin to take home, the Pope said he wants to return the icon as a gift to the Russian people.
President Putin’s two day stay in Italy will end after talks with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and European Union officials.