MOSCOW - Catholics aren't the only ones who have noted the significance of Pope Francis' name choice.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and head of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department of External Relations, says the Argentine pontiff's decision to honor Saint Francis of Assisi puts "service to the poor” at the top of the new pope's agenda.
According to Hilarion, such service is a good starting point for the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches to find new ways to work together. “We see a large area of possibilities for partnership with the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “We hope that our relationship as partners will grow under the leadership of this new pontiff.”
“We hope that Francis will give a push to the development of good relations between our churches, continuing a process started by his predecessor,” explained Dimitry Sizonenko, Secretary of the Department of Inter-Christian relations in the Russian Orthodox Church. “Pope Francis has said before that he likes Dostoevsky, and we would like to think that he might also like the spiritual tradition of the Russian Orthodox church.”
People who know the new pope say that the hoped-for warming in the two churches’ relationship is entirely possible. “As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio regularly visited Russian Orthodox Churches on Christmas Eve,” said Orthodox Bishop John, the Bishop for South America whose headquarters is located in the Argentinian capital.
He concludes that: “the new pope has a good relationship with Russian Orthodoxy and with Russian Orthodox believers.”
Russian Catholics are also betting that under Pope Francis there will be progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Igor Kovalevski, the general secretary of the Russian Conference of Bishops, noted that the newly-elected pope is well-versed in Byzantine Christian traditions since he also led Argentina's community of Greek Catholics, who are in full communion with the pope but have a liturgical tradition that is distinct from Roman Catholics.
"So he knows about the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism," says Kovalevski.
Finding neutral ground
According to Igor Baranov, one of the editors of the "Catholic Encyclopedia,” Pope Francis’s stances on social issues like marriage, abortion and euthanasia are similar to the Orthodox Church’s. “Just as the image of St. Francis of Assisi is important in Russian culture, so the image of Pope Francis will become close to Russian spirituality,” Baranov said.
There has been tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church since the 1990s, when Catholics in Ukraine seized Orthodox churches. For that reason, the two sides say that in spite of the positive predictions, it is still very early to talk about a meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
“A meeting between the new pontiff and the patriarch would probably have to take place on neutral territory and not until Russia is ready for it,” Kovalevski explained.
Orthodox Bishop Hilarion concurs: “I think that a meeting is possible, but its time and place will be largely determined by how quickly we can get over the conflicts that arose in the 1980s and 90s.”
Hilarion also said that Pope Francis has declared on more than one occasion that he feels close to the Orthodox Church and would like to have close contact between the two churches. As the diplomatic representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion will have his first meeting with the new pope sometime this week.