Pope Benedict XVI met with president Dmitry Medvedev at the Vatican on Feb. 17 in their first meeting since the Holy See and Russia decided to upgrade their diplomatic relationship in 2009.
Medvedev was accompanied by his wife and several assistants, including his minister for foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov. The Russian president is also in Italy for two days to meet with government leaders and inaugurate a year of cultural exchange between the two nations.
“This is a very important meeting,” the Pope told the Medvedev as they exchanged greetings briefly before closing the doors for their private audience in the papal library.
After an unusually long encounter of more than a half-hour, the doors were opened again to reporters who witnessed the exchange of gifts.
The Pope received a two-volume set of letters from the former Russian president to foreign heads of state and Pope John Paul II from 1996-99. He also was given “Orthodox encyclopedia” and a painting of the Moscow with a view of the Russian government headquarters of the Kremlin.
Medvedev was given a depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican in mosaic.
Diplomatic relations between Russia and the Holy See were only upgraded to “full” status at the end of 2009. The improvement in state-to-state relations is also hoped to be reflected in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations in the near future.
No patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has met with a Pope for nearly a millennium and many think a first encounter is approaching.
Russian Patriarch Kirill has long made statements in line with those from the Vatican on issues affecting an increasingly secularized Europe and in favor of the rights of the Church to work at improving social conditions.
The Feb. 17 encounter between the Orthodox Christian president and the Pope was followed by a second meeting with top officials of the Vatican secretariat of state.
The two leaders held “cordial discussions,” on a range of issues, including “the international situation, with particular reference to the Middle East,” according to a Vatican statement.
They also discussed inter-religious dialogue and the “promotion of specifically human and Christian values, and in the cultural and social field,” the Vatican said.
They concluded with discussion on the “positive contribution inter-religious dialogue can make to society” and the overriding matters affecting international relations at the moment.