Thawing relations between the long-separated Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches could lead to a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Alexy II.
While visiting France Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, suggested that a meeting with the pope could take place "perhaps not in a month but in a year or two," the International Herald Tribune reports.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been separated for almost a thousand years. However, Catholic engagement with other Orthodox Churches has improved of late. In Istanbul last year, Pope Benedict visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world's 220 million Orthodox.
But the Russian Orthodox Church has remained distant.
Father Ronald Roberson, an expert on the Orthodox with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the patriarch's comments were "an important step forward." He continued: "if he's talking about a meeting in a certain period of time, that is something that is quite new."
Catholic and Orthodox Christians have found common ground on moral issues and the problems of secularism. Patriarch Alexy II said in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro that both churches must cooperate to combat homosexual marriage and "propaganda in favor of euthanasia and abortion." He also said he had "the same approach" to Europe's lack of spiritual values as Pope Benedict XVI.
Some conflicts between the two churches could impede the visit. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, cited as problematic "missionary activities among some people belonging to the Catholic Church in Russia and some Greek Catholics in some parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan."
In a telephone interview he said, "Some activities of certain parts of the Roman Catholic Church hurt deeply, and there are those who say the Vatican puts forward one hand for shaking hands and the other to hit us. To avoid this impression it is important to solve the problems in sincere and concrete dialogue."
Other sources of tension include the status of former Catholic church buildings confiscated by the Soviets and now in Orthodox possession.
Anatoly Krasikov, head of the Center for Socio-Religious Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, thought a meeting between the pope and the Russian patriarch inevitable.
"I think that sooner or later this meeting must occur," he said. "There is more understanding between both churches." But, he added, "there is much that still divides Catholics and the Orthodox."