In 1999, Pope John Paul II had accomplished in Romania his dream of visiting a country of Orthodox majority. Others were to follow, although his main target, Russia, remained mostly reticent to his “unfreeze” strategy. Debates increased once the conflict with Ukraine grew more fierce, as political polarization resulted in religious polarization, too.
It might even be said that the new dialogue, started a half of a century ago between Catholics and Orthodoxes was blocked in Ukraine, at the beginning of the 90s, after having been for almost a millenium under the impact of frequently radical adversity. Once Communist regimes fell in Europe and USSR was dissolved, Greek Catholic Churches reappeared. They had been banned four decades earlier, and their wealth and believers had been merged de facto in Orthodox Churches. Therefore, a competitor reappeared, a competitor Orthodoxes were no longer expecting, and the general reactions were of hostility, delay and defamation. Because Orthodoxes did not want, with rare exceptions, to return the wealth seized by Communists – especially churches, bringing up the argument of an allegedly irreversible historical process. The debate gained political connotations, because the breech that divides Ukraine as far as confessions are concerned, contributed to the political split. Which, on its turn, due to Russia’s decisive intrusion, led finally to a war.
Ukraine’s case is significant from several points of view, from the perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church’s position. Ukrainian Orthodoxes are canonically split today, but the Russian Patriarchy managed to preserve their influence and never hesitated to assume partizan political positions. Moreover, the Orthodoxy became one of the most important piers of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, opposed to the West and with pretences of morality. This accented opposition to the Western world only managed to add further tension to relations with Catholics. It must not be forgotten though that relations between various Orthodox Churches are also fragile and fluctuating, which furthermore complicates the constructive evolution of the Catholic – Orthodox dialogue.
Is the Romanian Orthodox Church better positioned for relaunching this difficult relationship? The visit of the Pope, mentioned above, seemed like a positive beginning. Teoctist, the Patriarch at that time, who had accepted the visit only after consistent pressure by a Catholic Prime Minister, had lived a moment of moral redemption. He had been one specific companion of Communists; and now, he suddenly became associated to a brand new relation with one of the most passionate opponents of Communism, and the feeling of this late twist in his life made him remain faithful ever since to this new direction, of openness towards Vatican.
A consolidation of this position was awaited from his successor, present Patriarch Daniel, an assumed ecumenist. Yet, a few concrete situations, of increased convergence of Orthodox bishops and Catholic ones stirred such opposition, that Daniel had to step back. Unlike Russia, though, the opposition to the West never received political and ideological support, and the option to stay by the side of EU diminished the impact of the reactionary perspective of Orthodoxy. The support to the West was also determined by the great openness of Catholics to the great number of Romanian immigrants to Italy and Spain. As part of this openness, a great number of churches even hosted Orthodox masses. The Orthodoxes’ fear of Catholic propaganda in their own country was answered by a Catholic solicitude that was more than ecumenical. It is an asymmetry that should make Orthodoxes reconsider their position.
Generally, Catholic – Orthodox debates are analyzed presently from theological or political perspective. But, cultural dimension is perhaps the most significant of all. Catholicism has already assumed, especially in the last century, its dialogue with modernity. Orthodoxy, on its turn, is still highly reticent and boasts with its conservativeness. Its self-sufficiency makes it postpone the critical confrontation with its own tradition. Are there any real chances that the planned Pan-Orthodox Synod could be sort of a Vatican Council II of Orthodoxy? The premises do not seem favourable, but history may hide a few surprises.
Under these circumstances, the intention of President Klaus Iohannis who will be received by and have talks with the Sovereign Pontiff today, announced ever since his departure from Bucharest, to invite Pope Francis to Romania in 2018 can only be of good omen and will definitely open new windows of opportunity in the dialogue and rapprochement of the two Churches.