After historic meeting of pope and patriarch, what’s next for Catholic-Orthodox relations?

Christian Peschken is a U.S.-German filmmaker and convert to the Catholic faith. Mr. Peschken is the founder and president of Pax Press Agency Sarl, a Geneva-based media outlet reporting on the Catholic Church’s participation in the international forum at the United Nations. In Geneva, he collaborates closely with the Holy See Mission and also with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Sovereign Order of Malta.

Pax Press Agency's video reports and documentaries are broadcast regularly as part of the weekly program 'Vaticano' on EWTN, audio reports on Vatican Radio News and written articles through Catholic News Agency in several languages including English.

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On Feb. 12, I interviewed Mr. Peschken by email and asked him questions in light of the pope’s meeting that day with the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Cuba.

The recent meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba is a historic first. From your perspective covering the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the U.N. international forum in Geneva, what is particularly significant about this event?

I think this is a powerful testimony of the impact that previous meetings and events had. Last year, Pope Francis said, “I told Patriarch Kirill, we can meet wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come.” Apparently the patriarch called, and Pope Francis came.  

For the two churches it is another important, big step to overcome a historical rupture and “to breath with two lungs,” in Pope John Paul’s words.

The Francis-Kirill meeting was possible in Cuba, but some observers point out that a Roman pope has still never visited Russia. Do you believe such a trip might ever be possible?

We should keep in mind that this type of high-level meeting must first be endorsed by both a head of state and national religious leaders. This requires extensive cooperation and coordination between the two foreign ministries. From this perspective alone the meeting was a great success. I believe the private meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian President Putin last year, and now the meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, paves the way for a not so far in the future meeting in Russia. It's definitely the right time in history.  

Realistically speaking, what are the chances of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians returning to communion with one another as a result of this meeting?

You know that the Roman Catholic Church considers that the differences between Eastern and Western theology are complementary rather than contradictory. This was stated in the decree “Unitatis Redintegratio” of the Second Vatican Council, which also stated that the doctrinal teachings of the Eastern Orthodox churches are generally sound.

Even though theological and other disagreements undoubtedly exist, I think the most important element that we have in common is the Eucharist, and the belief that it is truly, not symbolically, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Divided now for a thousand years, I believe even in spite of the Cuba meeting the Eucharist will lead us to communion with one another and will unite us eventually.  

What could a closer relationship between the Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Church mean for East-West relations on a geopolitical level?

Achieving ecumenical mind meld was already a priority for St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI. They advanced the cause, and now Pope Francis has strived to preserve it and take it to the next level. 

It is a fact that 70 percent of Russians identifying themselves as Orthodox Christians. In 2012 the Patriarch Kirill publicly endorsed Mr. Putin and described Mr. Putin's rule as a “miracle of God.” Putin depicts himself as a defender of “traditional values,” and accuses the West of abandoning its Christian roots. 

It is also a fact that today, like never before in history, we are facing an aggressive Islamization and more insidious secularization. Archbishop Michael, bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Archbishop of Geneva and Western Europe, told me in an interview last year: “Calling it a war on religion today is absurd, I never saw before such consensus between religious leaders and between religious groups. There is a widespread religious blossom but states seem to be fighting against this phenomenon.”

I think this quote brilliantly describes the current situation. A closer relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Church can result in a stronger, united universal church and can cause faith-inspired impact on a political level as well, especially in Europe. 

In your view, what do relations between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy most need right now?

Mutual prayers for guidance and that God’s will be done. Notably some of Patriarch Kirill's first words to Pope Francis in Cuba were: “We are brothers. That is God's will.”

When it comes to popes, especially St. John Paul II in his influence on the collapse of Soviet communism in Europe, geopolitical observers often note the role of “soft power” in the Vatican’s relationship with various nations. On an international level, how do you see soft power playing (or potentially playing) a role in the papacy of Francis at this point?

First of all I think we should not politicize the church. The pope is not a politician. Even as the head of Vatican state, he remains a priest. He is considered one of the world's most powerful people because of his diplomatic and cultural influence. Like many popes before him, led by the Holy Spirit, he is ‘using’ wisely his influence and popularity.

“We need to communicate with each other,” Pope Francis said when he met with Russian President Putin last year, “to discover the gifts of each person, to promote that which unites us, and to regard our differences as an opportunity to grow in mutual respect.” Pope Francis pursues this objective globally. 

What have been some highlights of your time covering the Holy See in Geneva?

In 2014, I did a television special entitled “Observer” (for EWTN) with His Eminence Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, who was (until January this year) the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.N. Geneva for over 12 years.

My wife and I and Catholic journalist Edward Pentin spent a few days with him, and he showed us the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) and educated us about the United Nations and the importance of the Holy See’s engagement at the U.N. Even though I was already determined to start my agency project, the time with the nuncio “sealed the deal” so to speak. I am eternally grateful to H.E. Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, for his strong support of my agency project, from the very first day I presented it to him. Also, on a personal level, he has been and still is a wonderful inspiration to my wife and me.  

Of course there have been many other noteworthy events. I will mention only a few that come to mind now: The 2014 Conference about Protection of Christians in the Middle East, the conference about Arameans (Syriacs) genocide, the 2015 Order of Malta Symposium “Religions Together for Humanitarian Action,” the raising of the Holy See flag at the U.N. last year, and the “Laudato Si’” conference with Cardinal Turkson last month.

What have been some challenges of your time covering the Holy See in Geneva?

The very first challenge was to receive a press accreditation from the United Nations Geneva. Without the immense support from Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi and Rev. Federico Lombardi (of Vatican Radio) this would not have been accomplished. 

Today, more than one and a half years later, the challenge is every week to make a choice about what to report, and then to compress the reports so they fit into the limited EWTN TV time frames and still do justice to the overall message. 

What do you want people to take away from the work of Pax Press Agency in Geneva?

First: The Catholic Church is actively involved in the international forum at the U.N. on many different levels. Her participation caused, and causes positive global impact. 

Second: The work of the U.N. is not as negative as it is too often portrayed in the media.

I think our church's universality should always include the U.N. forum. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran said in 2002 that the United Nations is always a privileged “stage” (a modern Areopagus), “from which to say so many things that later reach the whole planet!” 

That's why the role of the Holy See in the forum of the U.N. is so important. I agree with Archbishop Tomasi who described the role, amongst other things, as being “a voice of conscience.”

Through Pax Press Agency I strive to contribute to a positive image of the work of the Catholic Church by providing a more accurate, balanced picture about her significant accomplishments in the forum of the United Nations in Geneva, especially in the area of human rights and religious freedom.   

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about the Holy See’s role in international relations, what would it be?

(Laughing) I would say to the Holy Father that saying only “one thing” won’t do it justice. 

Holy Father thank you for reminding us that international relations are relations between the human family. Thank you, successor of St. Peter, for following Jesus’ marching orders. Thank you for your own “touch of a shepherd,” reaching out also into dark and gray areas that mankind is concerned with. All your actions obviously resonate well globally with a diversity of people of all faiths, no faiths and different ethnicities.

Personally I believe, during my lifetime, no pope has ever accomplished such universal, massive attention and positive impact, especially in the secular arena as you have. It is certainly the power of the Holy Spirit at work through you.  

What are your hopes for the future?

During this Year of Mercy, that the Lord may unite all Christians, worldwide, to be bold and stand up for Christian faith and family values in the media, politics and society as a whole. Like Pope Francis said, “Unity is greater than what divides us.” 

Any final thoughts?

As far as the media presence of the Catholic faith in movies, television, radio, music and social media goes, we are somewhat lagging behind our Christian Evangelical brothers and sisters. Catholics should engage much more in the media in order to shape and influence people today. God allowed mankind to invent these tools for His (God's) glory. So let’s “preach the Gospel at all times” and everywhere in the media. 

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 10 months ago
The Eucharist is Christ. 1 Cor 2:2 Blessed be the Holy Trinity...
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

Thank you for reading. Let's continue to pray for Christian unity.

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