This month, Cardinal Parolin, the Pope’s Secretary of State and the second most important office holder in the Church, is visiting Russia. The cardinal has already visited Belarus and Ukraine; the visit to Russia marks the culmination of a long process in the Vatican’s Ostpolitik.

It is no secret that the Vatican has long wanted to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Ever since the meeting of the Blessed Paul VI with Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964, Rome has enjoyed warm relations with Constantinople. However, relations with the Russian Church, which represents the largest group of Orthodox believers, have long been difficult, and it was only in 2016 that Pope Francis actually met Patriarch Kirill, in the neutral territory of Cuba. Since that meeting there have been further welcome signs of a thaw.

The Russian Church is shortly to publish a new catechism, in which, for the first time, there will be a condemnation of those who oppose ecumenism. This is important, as it cuts the ground from under the feet of those Orthodox who see any dialogue with Rome as a danger to the purity of their faith.

At a popular level, the relics of Saint Nicholas of Bari have recently visited Russia, and been venerated by up to two million people. Saint Nicholas is greatly revered in Russia, and the visit of his relics, enabled by the Catholic Church, will perhaps begin to dispel some of the traditional hostility that ordinary Russian believers may feel towards the West and Catholicism. That Catholics and Orthodox revere the same saints may also serve as a reminder to all that we share the heritage of the first Christian millennium.

Naturally the Vatican hopes that relations with the Russian Orthodox Church will continue to improve, and that the cardinal’s visit may pave the way for a visit by Pope Francis at a date in the not too distant future. But, as the Vatican knows, it is impossible to make an approach to Russian Orthodoxy while not making an approach to the Russian government at the same time, so close is the relationship between the two. When the cardinal visits Moscow, he will not only meet various hierarchs of the Church, he will also meet representatives of the government, for the path to the Moscow patriarchate lies through the Kremlin. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that the Russian Church is opening up to Rome in part at least due to government pressure. The Kremlin may well see closer Orthodox-Catholic ties as a useful window to the West.

The Russian government, thanks to sanctions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine, lacks international friends at present; thus relations with the Vatican, which has a policy of never breaking off dialogue with anyone, are perhaps of greater value than they might otherwise be, and the half dozen visits of President Putin to the Vatican since 2000 may have helped give him a veneer of respectability that he might otherwise lack. But the Vatican has probably calculated that the short-term compromise involved in developing warm relations with the Russian government (overlooking concerns about human rights and foreign policy) will be amply balanced in the future by long-term gain on the ecumenical front.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection